Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Quantum Metaphor for Life and Sciences

Two ways of seeing reality in a restaurant window
We can probably all relate to the following experience: There are five minutes left in a sports game (soccer, hockey, what-have-you) and your favorite team is ahead by a goal. You are anxiously looking at the clock hoping that your team is going to pull through with a win. A lot can happen in that five-minute time interval, so you hold your breath. The seconds winding down feel like an eternity and you wish you could move their hands more quickly to end the game and secure the much-desired win!

Now let’s switch and flip around the whole experience for argument’s sake. There are still five minutes left in the game, yet in this scenario your favorite team is behind a goal. Now anything can happen in that time interval as well, but the problem is five minutes that seemed an eternity in the first case now are flowing and flying by much too fast. You do not want to speed up time but would like to grab and tie its hands and stop it from moving further so that your team will be given enough time to score that essential and vital equalizing goal!

The constant of both situations is the time interval. In each case, we are allotting the same amount of time. Although time is relative, as suggested and proven by Einstein, it is still quite relatively constant and the same (at least on planet Earth) whether you are cheering for Team A or Team B. The only difference lies in our perception of time.

This, of course, is not merely limited to sports events. As a rule, any event that thrills us or brings us joy will make time fly and go too fast for our intents and purposes, whereas dreaded events seem to move at a painstakingly slow pace. The boring class that seemingly will never end; the work shift that is taking an eternity to wrap up and finish. In either case, objectively we are faced with the same amount and length of time, but subjectively we experience time quite differently.

Yet our scientific view of things demands us to be objective in our observations. We say that regardless of the personal experience of time, the data that can be measured is exactly the same / identical for each scenario. That is a fact.

In the same vein, science needs quantifiable information: Today’s temperature of the weather is 25 degrees Celsius (or its equivalent 77 degrees in Fahrenheit). That may feel warm to you if you live in cooler climates or feel cool to you when you are accustomed to living in warmer and more tropical regions. Yet the exact measurable degree gives us and sets a benchmark to gauge the level of heat at that moment in time.

Or does it? This may take us to the medical sciences. There we have a disease that can be objectively diagnosed through specific tests, be it a blood test, urine sample or an X-ray. Based on the evidence, a person either has a disease or not. A doctor unlike an economist or even weather forecaster is not there to speculate nor to give us odds and probabilities whether a patient has a disease or not. We need scientific data or proof to corroborate the diagnosis.

The problem with this is that a given disease may be the same, but the personal experience of the disease is going to be quite different. Put differently, if a hundred persons have the exact same disease, its impact - that is the amount and strength of suffering, affliction, pain threshold etc. - is going to vary - at times rather substantially - from person to person and case to case. This experience, namely how ill the disease makes a person feel, is referred to as illness.

There are people who have a certain disease but are not aware of it as they do not feel unwell, while others react to it rather strongly. This may depend on many factors, including the genetic, physical and psychological make-up, the person’s life experiences as well as their ethnic and cultural background. No two people are ever alike and their response to medication and treatment will also vary, which is why even medical sciences cannot always give us the clear quantifiable data we would like to obtain.

To complicate matters, there are many cases that are deemed functional neurological disorders or are diagnosed as conversion disorders, which are rather psychosomatic ailments that do not correspond nor can be traced to an organic cause.

People may suffer from pain or even paralysis in parts of their body without having a physical cause; rather their illness is stemming from often subconscious psychological issues or trauma. The book It’s All in your Head by neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, which has also graciously and inadvertently provided some of the background medical information of my post here, gives insightful and detailed explanations of such cases.

But for our intents and purposes, we want to suggest and highlight that certain scientific data be taken with a grain of salt. I am not saying that we should consider the clearly ludicrous notion that the earth is flat (it is not). But in the past, learned people claimed with stern conviction that this was so, and they have been later proven wrong with science. Now this shows us that supposed certainty does not necessarily mean that one’s view is or will continue to be correct.

No better way to prove this than with quantum mechanics. Suddenly, we are faced with dilemmas in which our regular understanding of the world is shredded and falls to pieces. Is Schrödinger’s cat dead? Yes. But can it be alive? Yes. Is it possible for it to be both alive and dead at the same time? Um, yes, it could be in a zombie state until the box is opened, which is the only time we would know for sure. Are you sure about that? Absolutely.

This is a time where objectivity does not give us the distance that we need to define and verify events. Light can be both a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it; it is not an issue of P or not-P, but it can be both at the same time! In this case, the subject becomes so involved and enmeshed with the object itself that one cannot simply be without the other! Put differently, they are as interconnected and intricately linked with each other as space is with time in the indivisible form of space-time, which, after all, happens to be not linear but curved.

In these instances, our logic seems to go out the window and we may come to the uncomfortable realization that time and everything else for that matter is nothing but an illusion. The objects and colors we perceive then are nothing but atoms that move sometimes more or sometimes less quickly. The absolute kind of truth that we expect of Newtonian physics as well as the razor-sharp stiletto of logic will have to take a backseat for a moment due to the discoveries of the uncertainty principle since electrons and atoms disregard those rules and laws.

But there is a way out of this entangled mess. As humans we have always been prone to adapt to our surroundings and as humble and open-minded scientists we are generally quick to assimilate and respond to constantly changing circumstances. This does not mean that our previous scientific knowledge and discoveries are wrong (they are not) but there is still a factor we have been queasy about and that is the element of subjectivity.

Any human being no matter how well-trained and accomplished cannot escape their own subjective viewpoints and biases. And let us not treat it as a negative thing but actually embrace it. Let us rethink science and not see it as distancing the object from the subject but combine both in a mystical dance, where I lose myself in the flower I am contemplating and examining, and I am the flower and the flower is me.

Let us use our subjective capacity and empathy to identify ourselves with the object in question instead of carefully extricating and distancing ourselves from it. Let us consider - as it has been occurring in psychology – the person that comes to consult the therapist less as a patient but more as a client or agent who can benefit from the doctor’s knowledge, the same way the doctor can benefit from this interdependent interaction.

This is what could be called the Quantum metaphor. One can apply this mystical uncertain certainty as a union between object and subject, interior and exterior, self and not-self to create a new perspective or paradigm of the world around us.

It can be applied to anything from sciences, philosophy, politics to religion as well as daily life. When there is no definite yes or no answer or truth, one can see the world with different eyes. There is no good or evil per se but often changing circumstances. An immoral act of stealing or lying may be justifiable and even commendable in certain situations.

Let us listen to the other, our supposed enemy or threat and see them not in the biased and one-sided Us vs Them mentality but let us notice the common ground that we share despite our perceived differences. Yes, we can have a love-hate relationship with someone and that is not necessarily a contradiction in and of itself.

I am not merely saying that one should inundate oneself with positive thinking. This is not merely a glass half-full, half-empty metaphor. In fact, positive thinking can do us more harm than good in some cases. Nor am I talking about pure rationalism that would justify philosophical trends like utilitarianism where the benefit of the majority supposedly can override the suffering of the few.

The quantum metaphor would simply allow us to think of the world less in a divisive way; it is not just about me versus them or my self versus the external world but rather a unity where both joyously complement each other, where harm to my neighbor will, in return, harm me as well. The quantum metaphor would also help us curb our hubris and overreaching ambition in which we may allow ourselves not only to be wrong on certain matters, but to even contradict ourselves and our stern principles when the situation requires us to do so.

To exemplify this in another way, let us look at language and experience. For example, anxiety is something we try to avoid as we see it as a negative emotion and experience. But we would be wrong to do so. 

Anxiety not unlike pain is giving us signals that something is up and that this something needs our attention. It points us towards a problem or issue that exists within us. Instead of avoiding it, we should embrace it and follow it and see where it leads us, the same way we do not ignore pain as it is alerting us to fix a health issue in our body.

Equally, the adjective anxious can be perceived in two contradictory manners. I can feel anxious in its negative nervous sense or I can be anxious for something to happen as an expected thrill or as a sudden rush and onset of emotions. Or I can simply be anxious for my team to win with only five more minutes left in the game.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Education à la Carte: The Shift from Traditional to Student-Centered Teaching

Old-fashioned classroom with wooden table and chairs and blackboard
The Classroom not to mention curriculum and teaching methodology has changed significantly over the years. Class sizes with the exception of colleges that tend to cap the number of students allowed and admitted per classroom have grown exponentially in most academic institutions. Universities have for the most part gotten rid of those uncomfortable and inflexible wooden student writing chairs I used to find myself trapped in for the duration of the class; at the same time, a great deal of traditional writing utensils, such as old-fashioned pen and paper have also been eliminated and are now replaced with styluses, laptops and / or iPads. Electronic cellphones are in practically every hand, be they those of students or teaching faculty, and these gadgets have become an indispensable part of daily life, whether we approve of them or not.

The times they are a-changin’ and technology has affected us in often imperceptible and implicit ways. Yet it has had perhaps one of its most drastic consequences on teaching itself. Schools and universities are naturally more conservative in nature and tend to view trends with a suspicious eye; whenever they feel threatened or invaded by something, they simply ban it. They foment and thrive on fostering discipline and use the cloak of authority to enforce this most effectively. In the past, physical punishment was the norm for misbehaving students and often students were threatened with having parents notified or they would be served notice of possible expulsions from schools and universities.

Students used to have little to no say when it came to their education. They were not asked or consulted, and, in many cases, they were not even considered nor taken into account when it came to educational matters and methods. Instead, the school board and university management emphasized and aggrandized the role of their teachers. The latter were to be treated with utter respect and it went without saying that everything from curriculum to methodology was, ipso facto, teacher-oriented.

Instructors would proverbially preach from the podium and with hanging heads the students would jot down every pronouncement coming from the teacher’s lips as if they were the words of God.  Rote exercises and memory drills would ensure that knowledge of dates and details were imprinted indelibly onto the fresh and impressionable minds of the young. The exams would test rather mindlessly - that is with little creativity and even less critical thinking - what the students had retained from the previous lectures. Those with good or photographic memories would for the main part excel and they could impress with citations of facts and recite poetry without understanding or appreciating any of it.

The adage of knowledge being or posing as power was deeply ingrained into their minds, so students would vie and compete with each other to see who can cram the most amount of information into their spinning and overstuffed heads. Back then, there were not many ways of verifying information except through a quick visit to the local library. But today with the access of knowledge on the fingertips of almost every individual on the planet, facts can be quickly checked and verified or disputed; consequently, the teachers have lost some of their hegemony and autonomy in claiming to be always in the right. In other words, it has become easier now to prove one’s professors wrong and the latter could not just rest on their laurels nor nest on their diplomas but had to ensure now that their facts were indeed correct.

These technological changes alongside changing political and economic circumstances have shifted the focus and practice of education. While the student used to be perceived as an empty vessel that needed to be filled with knowledge, now we view them as autonomous human beings who, more importantly, have their share of rights. Teachers cannot physically punish their students anymore, nor should students be treated disrespectfully; in fact, students are to be seen as active as opposed to passive members in the educational exchange. Moreover, educators do not treat them as blank slates but try to delve into and even utilize their previous knowledge or build upon their existent skills.

Since encyclopedic knowledge has lost its status and value (few today truly and fully believe that knowledge is indeed power) and since information access has become rather commonplace within the new paradigm (essentially anybody can google information), the shift has moved from mere acquisition towards the application of knowledge. This is accomplished via critical thinking and it is a move away from content-specific information (who wrote what when) to skills and learning outcomes (what are the implications of the text in today’s world). What the education system is interested in nowadays is less whether students know something but how they can use and apply their knowledge in their own lives. This has led to the shift from a teacher-oriented to a (more) student-oriented approach.

All of this is constantly shifting and changing and sometimes it goes off course or even overboard. One of the latter instances is the use of a flipped classroom. In this case, it is all about the students and the teachers are stripped from almost all their authority and input and are considered facilitators of the learning process. This can be quite challenging not to say frustrating for students. It may be akin to the (mal)practice of throwing children into the swimming-pool and letting them figure out how to swim by themselves.

There are certainly some benefits to be attained from eclipsing the over-imposing and often interfering figure of the teacher and to give the students opportunities to collaborate and solve problems so that they can think in an active and productive manner. However, the flipped classroom is taking the thought to an utmost and extreme degree that cannot be the best nor the most efficient approach. One should not unduly restrict nor give too much leeway to the students but hold them responsible and accountable while guiding them with appropriate measures. The middle way generally proves best for positive results and there is rarely one single approach that can give the most dividends but rather an amalgamation of different styles.

In the same vein, I do not think that students and teachers should be on equal footing. In many cases, students are already too much in control when it comes to power and authority. This is especially so as higher education is now mainly a form of business and like any successful enterprise it would wish to or has been economically forced to provide their clients and consumers with what they crave most. Certainly, educational standards ought to be kept at a similar level, but these also have become more flexible and may even adjust to political strategies and structures of the times.

Students have earned their human rights, but they should not dictate the mandates of their own education. I disagree with students making up their own exams, deciding on the content of the course or generally doing as they please; students already have a shorter attention span and have problems with concentration and following instructions, so they should not be left to their own devices. Part of the reason why the traditional model of lecturing is not functioning anymore in today’s world is because their capacity to focus has diminished due to the use of various forms of technology and there is little to help them change much or to become otherwise.  

For this reason, educators need to adopt strategies that are best suited for the given outcome. In other words, I would not wholly eliminate the lecture as a source of teaching but would have it minimized and followed with active involvement and participation. It should not be all about the teacher nor should it be all about the student but there should be a healthy balance, the middle-way compromise among the two. What worries me is the danger of eroding respect for the authority, in this case, the teacher or instructor. Their relationship should remain and be on the formal and professional side. It should not be rigid but still have a firm grounding or foothold.

In fact, education should not be a restaurant where students can order whatever they please. It should have an established menu yet be open-minded and flexible to switch its ingredients or change the way the meals are served. One could adjust one’s teaching methods under what I like to call framed spontaneity to make room for improvisations and possible on-the-fly changes to one’s course content as well as delivery. Furthermore, one should not shun nor fear technology by prohibiting cell-phones, laptops or other electronic devices in the classroom but rather take advantage of them and use them for the benefit of everyone involved.

A blended class where classroom interaction is enriched instead of wholly substituted by technological tools would be the most ideal outcome. And in many of these cases, it is common that students know more about technological use and advances than the teacher, so this new knowledge can come in handy for the educator as well. This situation could serve, if used efficiently, as a veritable educational encounter and as a profitable interaction between students and educators, and it would ensure that learning continues to take place on both sides of the spectrum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Anna Freud: Psychoanalysis for Children

Black and White Picture of both Psychoanalysts
When we think of psychoanalysis, we immediately and automatically associate it with the towering figure of Sigmund Freud, the father and founder of this highly influential branch of psychology. Freud’s views, perspectives and discoveries on human nature and sexuality shocked many but healed many more. He posited that sexuality or sexual desires basically start from birth and then find a culminating point in the Oedipus Complex (the unconscious psycho-sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent) somewhere between the ages three to six.

In fact, the first years of childhood are so important in the psychological development of human beings that they often determine whether a person will have psychological issues and neuroses in their adult life. A wide range of issues from depression to addiction as well as sexual deviance and even more commonly mate selection and marital problems can be traced back to certain traumatic events or triggers that occurred in childhood. As such, the field of psychoanalysis has helped and even cured many a person by allaying and releasing them from such traumatic baggage of the past.

Yet interestingly, Freud rarely worked with children with the famous exception of Little Hans, the case that brought Freud’s views on castration anxiety (the child’s unconscious fear of being punished by the father for his incestuous desires for his mother) to the foreground. Even then, the treatment work was mostly done through indirect means as Freud had little one-on-one contact with Hans himself.

Yet it would be his youngest daughter Anna Freud who would work with children and shed light as well as directly highlight the psychological processes of children. Many would claim that children per se do not need psychoanalysis or that it could be applied only to troublesome kids and bullies that are often quietly suffering themselves and make life hard for their surroundings. But psychoanalysis knows no age restrictions and whether we are thinking of children or adults, this field can help or be of benefit to practically anyone with issues, a situation and condition quite common in our modern times.

Approaching the writings of Anna Freud was very interesting and enlightening to me. I very much enjoyed her style as well as her compassion and understanding of the interior world of children. She also demonstrated to me the difficulties as well as rewards of working with children as opposed to adults. Finally, I was able to learn more than a thing or two about being a responsible parent and being a responsive teacher myself.

One of the first difficulties as a psychoanalytic child therapist is closely and intricately tied to the issue and conditions of employment. For instance, psychologists who treat and counsel troubled youth are generally employed by and under the service of the state government. As a result, they are free to diagnose patients and provide their reports to the government officials in question.

The situation is more complex when it comes to child therapists who are often employed by and need to directly report to the parents of the child. In many cases, the psychological problems stem from the home environment and come from the very people who pay for the therapy sessions themselves! If the therapist finds justified blame and reproach with the parents, then the latter might dismiss the efficacy of the treatment and discontinue working with the therapist to the detriment of all involved.

Conversely, when adults seek the services of a therapist, they may cancel at any time depending on how they view the progress of the therapy. Most of the times the issues can be traced to childhood problems, but, as a rule, the parents then are not the ones who are paying for the treatment; it is the adults themselves who make that decision and subsequent investment. When parental issues come to the foreground, the adult can then effectively deal with them unlike children who are still under the guardianship of their parents and whose opinions about them have not yet crystallized into fixed views.

This is due to their different psychological make-up and stage development. When adults approach the therapist, their ego and superego are already fully formed yet within the child they are both still fluid and malleable. There was not enough time to set them in stone and although this would make it easier to mold them, it also carries with it new sets of challenges.

As a result, the child therapist cannot deal with the same tools and methods that are used with adults. First, the child therapist needs to win over the trust and confidence of the child. With adults this can be achieved through credentials, experience, success rates or even word of mouth recommendations. Children, however, are not particularly impressed by any of that!

Hence the child therapist must first engage in play with the child and gradually build rapport in that manner. Often the therapist must go along with the child’s way of thinking and even copy their peculiar behavior as well as agree with their likes and dislikes. For example, in one case, Anna Freud would meet and talk with a child under the table since that felt like a safe and comfortable spot for that young individual. Or Anna Freud had to impress another child with her knowledge and skills of something that the child viewed as important, be it the act of painting or juggling and balancing items on one’s head, for instance.

To win over the trust of the child, Anna Freud would often simply play with them over the first sessions just to make them feel safe and more comfortable so that they could and would open up to this stranger in front of them. All this would then involve a somewhat higher degree of artifice and pretense with the end that the child not only accept but also respect the therapist as a voice of authority.

With adults, there is or ideally should be very little judgment emanating from the therapist. Although the therapist guides the patient and offers interpretations and viewpoints, they are not meant as judgments. The clients need to find their own truths throughout the whole labor-intensive process.

Yet children cannot be left to their own devices. They need to be guided and educated and even reprimanded at times. They need to be told what the right action is as opposed to a harmful one. In a way, the child therapists do not experience merely the transference of a parental figure, but they must in fact become a living embodiment of that figure in front of the child to have effective treatment.

Usually with adults, the therapist is not much more than an empty canvas on which the client projects and transfers their own issues and then through this transference, the clients may reach the state of abreaction, the realization of the cause and source of their anguish and problems. This insight would greatly help them to underscore unconscious connections in their actions and reactions and to see the situation in more level-headed and clear-minded ways; as a result, they could deal with the issues more effectively in the future.

A child must also reach certain insights, but they are different in scope and nature. The child then needs to see themselves in a different light, but they are still part and parcel of the home environment at least until their young adulthood. By reducing or managing their fears, they may even be able to accept and live with the shortcomings of their own parents.

The insights of child psychoanalysis are not only helpful for therapists, but by extension they are also useful for teachers and parents alike. One of the main assumptions is that children are passing through normal psychological states and stages not unlike biological phases and growth.

Children may be docile at one stage but more troublesome in thought and behavior at another. They can turn from sweet angelic beings to mean, volatile and tantrum-filled little monsters. They can be obsessed with poop, toilet humor and genitals at later stages. 

As educators and parents, we need to take all of this with a grain of salt, reduce punishment and increase our empathy, understanding and patience; moreover, we ought to deal with challenging and difficult situations in an accepting and enlightened way to avoid future trauma or scarring of the child.